Because of its investment in transportation, Georgia was a leader in our region 20 years ago, but today it has fallen behind because it has not advanced a comprehensive statewide and regional transportation plan. Lately, Georgia has not demonstrated that it understands transportation’s potential to create jobs, heighten commercial advantages and increase livability. It has fumbled opportunities and advanced no clear vision of a transportation future.
In 1998, I secured millions in funding for transportation connectivity. Twelve years later, almost $100 million of that funding still has been left unused. The state never secured the 20 percent match needed to use the funds; meanwhile the cost of the original projects has skyrocketed. The deadline to take advantage of these resources expired in 2009. I am working with congressional colleagues to extend that funding, but if the state cannot work with the Transportation Department to dedicate those funds quickly, they may be returned to the federal Treasury.
When Florida realized it needed to raise matching funds to secure $1.25 billion in government funding for high speed rail, it declared an emergency session of its legislature to make sure it could come to the table with all the resources needed. In December, Florida’s legislature approved a plan that allocated $15 million in funding each year to the project. Since the federal government is facing the highest deficit in its history, it decided to back states like North Carolina and Florida because they were determined to put federal dollars to good use on transportation.
Unfortunately, without a proven track record, it’s hard for Georgia to expect any high-speed rail plan we advance to be taken seriously. It has developed study after study in recent years, with no significant budgetary support for transportation solutions. MARTA is $160 million in debt. Yet only $2 million was allocated to MARTA to help resolve these issues by a state given over $572 million in federal stimulus dollars. Transportation affects the future of the entire state. A good project has the power to transform isolated, even depressed, communities along a rail line into thriving cities.
We need to consider the needs of big and small businesses and efficiently connect them to the major cities in the region and throughout the state. Community leaders, local elected officials, business and transportation groups all must sit down together to develop a vision we can all believe in. And then we must act. We need to put politics and partisanship aside, put all the grievances and irritations behind us, and get the job done for the people of Georgia. The clock is ticking, and others are passing us by.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) serves the 5th Congressional District.
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